Strasbourg, France – European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled measures on Wednesday to ramp up the European Union’s border and coastguard and bolster the bloc’s asylum system.
The announcements came during Juncker’s annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament. It comes at a critical juncture for the EU, amid a rise in populist and nationalist forces who have seized on the migration issue to show where Europe is falling short.
The biggest challenge facing the European Union
Despite a fall in arrivals since the crisis of 2015-16, when more than a million people reached the bloc, the issue still dominates the agenda. Italy’s new government has joined the hard-liners and begun blocking migrant rescue boats from docking in its harbours.
Besides Italy, governments in Austria and central Europe argue that the EU can only bring migration under control by closing its borders to new arrivals, while opposing efforts to redistribute asylum seekers within the bloc.
“We cannot continue to squabble to find ad-hoc solutions each time a new ship arrives. Temporary solidarity is not good enough. We need lasting solidarity – today and forever more,” Juncker said.
The proposals come a week before EU leaders hold informal talks in Salzburg, where migration will be high on the agenda.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described migration as the biggest challenge the EU is facing, calling it a “significantly larger” threat to the bloc’s unity than the eurozone financial crisis had been.
Strengthening the European Border Agency
Juncker announced plans to boost the European border and coastguard agency, Frontex, by increasing its officers from 1,500 to 10,000 by 2020. They should be able to carry out identity checks, refuse entry and intercept people, according to the commission proposal.
Frontex should also be able to deploy staff outside the EU, in neighbouring countries and beyond, under the proposal.
Juncker proposed further developing the EU asylum agency to help member states process asylum claims, as well as accelerating the return of illegal migrants – an issue that has long been a sticking point in the EU.
At the same time, Juncker called on member states to open more legal pathways for skilled migrants to enter the EU.
The State of the Union address lays out the commission’s political priorities for the year ahead, and comes ahead of EU elections in May 2019, in which populists and nationalists could make strong gains.
The proposals require the approval of EU member states and lawmakers before they can take effect.
Juncker also announced plans to abolish daylight savings in the EU; crack down on terrorism and election meddling; launch a new trade-oriented partnership with Africa; and improve decision-making on foreign policy issues by scrapping vetoes in some areas.